One of the buzzwords heard often around our seminary is the word “formation” – or pastoral formation. I asked my seminarian husband to briefly explain formation to me. He responded, “It’s about not coming here to just punch in your hours, but to really digest everything you’re learning. Let it all sink in and allow it to grow you.” To shape a pastor out of a theology student.
That formation, I believe, has so far involved lots of work, lots of reading, lots of writing, lots of thinking, and… lots of coffee. Ah, coffee. It sits just to the right of everything we do. Spilled on our books, stained on the coasters, stocked in our freezer. It’s a part of our formed culture. Just this evening, a fellow seminarian stopped by to borrow our coffee grinder. Last week, another friend stopped by for a cup of joe to go. A few evenings ago, our neighbor surprised us with a homemade, blended toffee-flavored coffee topped with whipped cream and chocolate syrup. Similar to pastoral formation, the formation of a coffee drinker does not happen overnight. There is a transformation process.
My formation as a coffee drinker began at birth. My father was and still is a coffee drinker. Every morning, the smell of Folgers or Maxwell house coffee (the classics) filled the house. But I didn’t experience my first cup of hot coffee until a bright, crisp fall afternoon my freshman year of undergrad. I was studying for an exam with a friend outside his dorm. He offered me some freshly brewed coffee in my CUPPS (Cannot Use Paper Plastic Styrofoam) mug. I had it straight up – no cream, no sugar. It was pretty nasty. I am not sure if it was the caffeine or the persisting bitterness in my mouth that kept me awake that night.
My next cup of coffee didn’t happen for another four years. I sat in a cramped third floor apartment room above a Vietnamese-ish restaurant in Taiwan. Our Mandarin teacher, the owner of the restaurant, handed each of us three students a small espresso cup filled with the darkest coffee I had ever seen. None of us were coffee drinkers, but we had to drink. You know, respect your elders.
Remember that persisting bitterness from before? That was child’s play. One sip of Teacher Chen’s coffee grew hair on your chest, and on the chest of the guy sitting next to you. She told us that the strength of the coffee was directly related to the brewer’s appreciation for their guests. Everyday of class, we downed her strong brew. We tolerated each cup of coffee with lots of sugar. Once, on a class writing assignment, we wrote in Mandarin, “I eat Teacher Chen’s coffee” instead of “drink.” Of course, in jest, because the coffee was so thick it could hold up the stir spoon. Teacher Chen marked it wrong.
The Taiwanese call coffee, “American tea.” But it was in Taiwan, not the U. S., where my coffee drinking tastes were truly formed. Similar to trendy coffee houses here, there is no concept of a “refill” or a “bottomless cup of coffee” in Taiwan. So three years later, just a couple of months before I married Toby, I returned to the U.S. and sat in a pancake house with my mother. Like a big girl, I ordered my first cup of American coffee. It felt good… until I took my first sip. Ugh! It tasted like burnt water. I had come full circle.
It was at that moment that I knew I was a coffee drinker. Maybe even a coffee snob? But my formation as a coffee drinker was not finished. Since then, I have developed into a daily drinker, not just a social drinker. I’ve moved from a “sugar please” to a “two creams, no sugar” coffee drinker. I prefer whole beans and half-n-half, heavy whipping cream if I’m feeling fancy. I have mood cups – different mugs for the different moods I’m in. I like hot coffee every morning and in the afternoons on cooler days. I like iced coffee at 3:00 o’clock on hot afternoons. I can’t work at the computer without one or the other, depending on the time of day. And although this is the coffee drinker I am today, who knows what tomorrow, or next year, or the next place will bring.
I expect that Toby’s pastoral formation will be similar. There are certain characteristics and experiences the seminary wishes him to have before he becomes a legitimate pastor. But walking out of here with his diploma and his coveted, first-call papers will not be the completion of his pastoral formation.
He will continue to evolve a little bit some days, and a lot others. Every encounter will change him. Every prayer, Bible reading, meditation, message, and study will spiritually renew, challenge, and grow him. Each relationship and experience will affect him. And one day, he will pause just long enough, maybe over a cup of hot coffee, to see that seminary and all that business of formation way back when was just a short, albeit significant, chapter in a whole lifetime of transformation.